When it comes to (wonderfully) weather-beaten landscapes, Iceland reigns supreme. Centuries of active volcanoes and slow-moving glaciers have transformed this tiny, windswept island into a veritable Disneyland of outdoor delights. From plunging waterfalls to spewing geysers, aquamarine lagoons to black sand beaches, the entire country is practically begging to be Instagrammed (#nofilterneeded). And with great activities and daytrips available year-round, Iceland is one of the most popular destinations on PlacePass.
We sent our intrepid photographer Zeb Goodman around the island to suss out Iceland’s best daytrips and experiences, and discover what makes the island so magical. (Hint: it’s not just the northern lights).
Want to follow in his footsteps? Check out our top Iceland experiences.
1. See the Northern Lights
Seeing the northern lights is one of the more surreal experiences you can have in Iceland, and that’s quite a claim considering what most of the country looks like. If you visit Reykjavik during the right time of year, taking a trip outside the city to search for the lights is almost a rite of passage, and one that, with a little luck and the right timing, will almost certainly prove to be unforgettable.
That said, it should be noted that seeing the northern lights is far from guaranteed. A bus can bring you out of range of the city’s light pollution and chase the lights based on a forecast, but apart from that there’s not much you can do but sit, shiver, and wait. A good night of aurora-watching calls for a bit of luck, a lot of patience, and a ton of warm layers, but when the conditions align it’s always, always worth it.
2. Go sightseeing in Reykjavik
For a city of its size, Reykjavik has a lot of variety in terms of things to see. A hop-on city sightseeing excursion works flawlessly for travelers who want to get a good sense for the city without much time (and who may not have done too much background research on what to do in Reykjavik before arrival).
The hop-on hop-off bus runs all day and makes stops at some of Reykjavik’s coolest sights. In fact, the only thing you’re not guaranteed to see on this tour is perfect weather, which makes a tour bus all the more appealing. If you’re not a fan of gale force winds blowing rain sideways into your face while you’re trying to snap a selfie, then maybe opt for the bus instead of the sidewalk.
Don’t miss Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Concert Hall, or Reykjavik Harbor, and if you have a few spare minutes, grab a hot dog at Reykjavik’s infamous hotdog stand.
3. Walk the Vatnajokull Glacier
Unless you’re up in the highlands, a lot of your time traveling around Iceland will be spent inside of a car or within a few hundred meters of one. That’s kinda just how it goes. And while most of your time exploring the country in said car takes place on some of Iceland’s nicely paved tourist roads, it’s worth it to veer off-road and check out the moonlike landscape of the Vatnajokull Glacier on a guided glacier walk.
Twenty minutes of driving through a barren volcanic landscape, ten minutes by boat across a giant puddle of glacial meltwater, and you’re at the base of the largest glacier in Europe. Once you’ve strapped on your crampons and accidentally poked your friend in the eye with your ice-pick you’ll spend the next two hours hiking across crevasses and around canyons of meltwater on a gigantic block of electric blue ice. Unless you’ve been to Antarctica, this is just about the coolest ice-related experience you can have. Get out of your car and out of your comfort zone for this one. You’ll be glad you did.
4. Explore the epic landscapes of Iceland’s southern coast
Aside from the Golden Circle, which many would argue has become too touristy, Iceland’s south coast — especially between Reykjavik and Vik — is the country’s biggest draw for tourists outside Reykjavik. Virtually every ten minutes of driving brings another epic waterfall, beach, landmark, or attraction, with some of the most epic volcanic landscapes linking them together along Iceland’s Ring Road. A day tour from Reykjavik makes it easy to explore.
Experiences here run like a highlight reel of Southern Iceland’s best attractions, starting with the beautiful seaside town of Vik and its legendary black sand beach. From there you’ll head to Seljalandsfoss waterfall (which you can walk behind) and Skógafoss waterfall (which you can walk above), and finally to Sólheimajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. If you’re in Iceland for more than a day and you miss out on the south coast then you essentially haven’t visited Iceland. Need we say more?
5. Taste the best of Reykjavik on a food tour
If you’re looking for fine-dining, then sure, the trendy restaurants along Laugavegur will suit your needs just fine. If you’re looking for unique, local stops that you’d never find outside of Iceland, then a food tour is exactly what you need.
You can sample distinctly Icelandic dishes such as homemade rye-bread ice cream, Icelandic lamb stew, cured Icelandic horse meat, and goose liver pate. Many food tours stop at Iceland’s legendary hotdog stand. The guides are all incredibly friendly and knowledgeable about Icelandic cuisine, having mostly come from culinary backgrounds themselves. If you want interesting and delicious Icelandic food without the embellishments (and price tags) that come with fancier restaurants, then this is for you.
6. Sip local brews at the Olgerdin Brewery
There’s no real reason you’d know this unless you’re a hardcore history buff (or have been on this beer tasting tour already), but Iceland has a very interesting and, at times, seemingly unbelievable history with alcohol that you need to hear first hand to believe.
Unlike some brewery tours where you sit through an unnecessarily technical monologue about the brewing process, and only then get to sample a few beers at the end, this tour is more like a stand-up comedy act recounting the history of alcohol in Iceland, accompanied by (way) more beer than you would expect to drink.
Then, and only after you’ve been sufficiently inebriated, does the tour of the facility itself begin, at which point, if you’ve drank your cards right, learning about the bits and bobs of the brewing process becomes kind of interesting. All in, the highly energetic and supremely hilarious guides, paired with the delicious free-flowing Icelandic lagers, make this tour a beer-lover’s dream.
7. Go bar crawling in Reykjavik
For a city of such modest (read “tiny) size, Reykjavik boasts a pretty wild nightlife. The range of options stretches from bumping minimalist-chic nightclubs all the way to Big Lebowski-themed dive bars (White Russian, anyone?) making decision-paralysis a very real issue when deciding where to head out for the night. If you don’t want to spend your night deliberating on where to go (or risk ending up somewhere lame) then grab a spot on an ever-popular bar crawl and let the guides do all the work for you.
Not only do the local guides know all the best bars in the city, they’ll get you in quickly and can order secret off-menu drinks like a White Russian with coco puffs inside! All in all, a bar crawl is a great way to see the city’s nightlife, make some new friends, and try some traditional Icelandic drinks and snacks you’d never otherwise think to order, like putrefied shark meat and a shot of Iceland’s infamous Black Death. Our only suggestion would be to wait on the shark meat until you’ve had a few drinks first. After all, there’s a reason its included in the bar crawl instead of the food tour.
8. See Humpback whales
If you’re anything like us, your preconceived notion of a whale watch is probably a bunch of seasick old people throwing up over the railing of an old steamship-looking boat while the captain points at a dot on the horizon and tries to convince you it’s a whale. That sounds like the opposite of a good time so let’s be as clear as possible right up front: THIS IS NOT THAT KIND OF WHALE WATCH.
Instead of the nightmare mentioned above, you’ll board a tiny RIB boat (rigid-inflatable boat) with a maximum of twelve other people and strap in while the captain steers you out into Eyjafjord so fast that the trip feels more like a rollercoaster than a boat ride. Once you’re out of the harbor you’ll spend the next two hours speeding around the fjord from whale to whale, often getting within ten meters of these epic mammalfish — close enough to feel the spray from their blowhole when they come up from air, which would probably be gross if you weren’t so pumped about there being a WHALE RIGHT NEXT TO YOU.
Let us reiterate that this is NOT your grandma’s whale watch. If you’re ever going to get an adrenaline rush from sitting down and waiting for an animal to appear, then this is most definitely it.
9. Soak in the Lake Mývatn Nature Baths
If you’ve already been to the Blue Lagoon and thought to yourself, “wow, this sure is cool but why is the bottom of the lagoon coated in human hair?” then you should stop asking questions you don’t want the answers to and try to enjoy yourself a bit more. Within the context of enjoying yourself more, we recommend the Mývatn Nature Baths, which are like a better version of the Blue Lagoon, but with less crowds (and therefore less hair).
From Akureyri, guided tours head out to Lake Mývatn, stopping along the way at the epic Goðafoss — a name which appropriately translates to “waterfall of the gods” — as well as the Dimmuborgir Lava Fields, which are also epic, if not somewhat overshadowed by the overwhelming rotten egg smell from the natural sulfur deposits in the area. Most tours then stop at the Nature Baths, giving you time for a relaxing soak in the aquamarine, silicon-laden water, before heading back to Akureyri.
10. Check out the Godafoss and Dettifoss waterfalls
When people think of Iceland’s waterfalls their minds generally jump to Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss by the south coast. Those may be the most famous given their proximity to Reykjavik, but arguably the most epic waterfalls in Iceland are Goðafoss and Dettifoss. For starters, Goðafoss means “waterfall of the gods,” which, if anything, is an understatement. Meanwhile, Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall, the scale of which we can only properly convey by pointing out that some people bring earplugs when they visit. Book a guided excursion from Akureyri Port to get there easily.
In addition to the two waterfalls, you can stop at the nearby Hverarönd geothermal vents, Lake Mývatn, and the Dimmuborgir Lava Fields, all of which will leave you with some pretty dope fuel for your Instagram feed as well as the lingering scent of rotten eggs on all of your clothes.
11. Explore The Westfjords and Dynjandi Waterfall
Alright, we know it’s a Top 10 list, but we couldn’t resist including this gem as #11. If you thought Iceland in general was isolated, just wait until you see the Westfjords. This part of the country consists mostly of gravel roads, abandoned cottages, winding fjords and inlets, and then, all of a sudden, a HUGE SEVEN-TIER WATERFALL! What’s that you ask? What on earth is a seven-tier waterfall? Why its a waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into yet another waterfall. What else?!
This area of Iceland may as well be its own country entirely, with its beautiful fjords, looming mountains, and adorable little fishing villages, and if you’ve come far enough to get to Isafjordur then you may as well enjoy the view. Sure, Dynjandi Waterfall is the main attraction for the region, but every twist and turn in the road there and back brings a view that surpasses the last one, making the entire day feel like something out of a Nature Channel highlight reel. Guided tours head out regularly from Isafjordur Harbor.